As much as we may want to pretend otherwise, the justice system has two distinct tiers. Those with money get an easier path than those without. That disparity is never acceptable but is especially offensive in the criminal context, where poor people who find themselves in the system are likely to stay there whether or not they are guilty of the offences charged, because they lack the ability to pay for legal representation or to post bail. Those disadvantages result in innocent poor people being locked up for extended periods of time, many of whom are on death row.
These effects are arguably a feature of the system rather than a bug, since these circumstances disproportionately affect black people in the southern United States (see Ava Duvernay’s 13th for more on that terrifying but logical conclusion). Incidentally, the reason my criticisms are focused on the American justice system is simply because the U.S. is basically the only western civilization that still applies the death penalty.
Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was one of those innocent poor black people waiting on death row in Alabama. Convicted of the murder of a woman he had never met, by a jury from which black people were excluded, based entirely on the false testimony of a convicted felon, Johnny D seems resigned to his fate. Which is understandable, as there is no point in hoping for merciful treatment from a justice system stacked against you. That changes when Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Harvard law school graduate arrives in Alabama to provide legal aid to the disadvantaged, takes up Johnny D’s case, and challenges the conviction despite constant opposition from the district attorney, the sheriff, and the legal system. Brie Larson is also in this movie, as Stevenson’s operations director, but it’s a bit role. Foxx and Jordan get most of the screen time and all the best scenes. The two of them are excellent and are worth the price of admission on their own.
Their performances helped me get through the depressing fact that this is a true story, and worse, a true story we have heard many times before. Just Mercy does a great job of shining a light on injustice but is also an entertaining courtroom battle in its own right, that more than holds its own against any fictional legal drama. I was particularly impressed that the drama was allowed to play out with a minimal amount of Hollywood glitz, so that the courtroom scenes were close to how they would have played out in real life. Clearly, the filmmakers believed the real story was compelling enough to stand on its own, and they were absolutely right.